When Americans vote for President Obama, is this the kind of moral progress they support?
Friday, February 8, 2013 Rochester, NY - According to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism from June 2004-mid-December 2012, American drone strikes killed between 2,562 and 3,335 Pakistanis of which some 891 were believed to have been civilians. Even more disturbing is the finding of a new study released by researchers at New York University and Stanford Law School that show “insurgents only account for one out of every 50 deaths (2 percent) at the hand of unmanned drones in Pakistan. The study also revealed that the CIA has been “double striking” targets, thereby killing first responders. Since the beginning of 2013 the CIA has launched seven deadly strikes, killing more than 40 people, including 11 civilians. Hima Shamsi, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, says this indiscriminate bombing has “morphed the Central Intelligence Agency into a paramilitary organization with an expansive unlawful killing programme.”
Notwithstanding the moral crisis associated with orchestrating a clandestine war that has killed more innocent people than two Mai Lai massacres combined, the Obama administration must do a better job addressing the geopolitical consequences linked to his international drone war. One major critic of the President’s use of drones is Michael Boyle, who was on his counter-terrorism group leading up to the election in 2008. Boyle condemns the use of combat drones as having adverse strategic effects that have not been properly weighed against the tactical gains of killing enemy combatants. “There is an urgent need for greater transparency because most Americans remain unaware of the scale of the drone program and the destruction it has caused,” he writes. Boyle also argues that these bombings have a debilitating effect on local populations and their governments. “Despite the fact that drone strikes are often employed against local enemies of the government in Pakistan and Yemen, they serve as powerful signals of the regimes’ helplessness and subservience to the United States and undermine the claim that these governments can be credible competitors for the loyalties of the population.”
In response to expert anti-drone analysts like Boyle, the Obama administration has countered with a number of legal and rhetorical tactics. The administration claims the persistent use of drone strikes against Al Qaeda and its allies are lawful as part of the military action authorized by Congress after Sept. 11, as well as under the general principle of self-defense. This last point is important because it allows the President to evade an executive order banning political assassination.
For a brief moment, let’s be sympathetic to the President by looking at this issue from a philosophical viewpoint. In Stephen Pinker’s new book The Angels of Our Better Nature: How Violence Has Declined, the Harvard scholar claims that the expansion of literacy, journalism, history, science, third party dispute resolution, courts and police, the consolidation of kingdoms, the transition from tribal groups, commerce, and an increase in trade and exchange has contributed to the overall decline of global violence. Pinker also cites discoveries in forensic archeology that show a disproportionate amount of skeletons that had bashed-in skulls or arrowheads embedded in bones; what is more, he highlights many ghoulish medieval torture practices that have long since been abolished including the phenomenon of debtors’ prison and other outmoded forms of institutional violence like human sacrifice, transcontinental slavery, and the persecution of the mentally handicapped. If Pinker is right about evolutionary trends in violence, then unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), also known as drones, may be more evidence that humans are growing increasingly civilized in the arena of warfare. One can make the argument that drones are more lethal than boar spears and brass knuckles, but also much more technologically precise (and therefore humane) than cluster bombs and Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrators (RNEP). The main idea being stressed here is that this rhetoric is a mirror reflection of the Orwellian effort by the Obama administration to rationalize the use of drones as a lifesaving advancement in counterterrorism weaponry. In a way, Pinker’s thesis about violence declining with the course of human evolution serves to undergird the moral and political architecture of Obama’s entire drone policy. This also explains why the President selected John Brennan to replace David Petraeus as CIA director. At a Woodrow Wilson Center speech last year, Brennan unambiguously solidified his superior’s position on drones when he stated: “There is nothing in international law that bans the use of remotely piloted aircraft for this purpose or that prohibits us from using lethal force against our enemies outside of an active battlefield, at least when the country involved consents or is unable or unwilling to take action against the threat.”
Brennan’s zeal for non-personal combat is legendary in the field of national security. But the President’s move to codify this martial strategy into a national policy, especially in the wake of killing three American citizens in 2011, has inspired citizens across the nation to actively protest the development and use of drones in combat operations as a violation of both international law and the 4th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. One such group is the Hancock 15, a coalition of independent anti-war activists mainly from Western and Central New York. In a fearless attempt to draw the public’s attention to the unlawful use of drones, these men and women have been willing to risk jail time by “trespassing” onto the Hancock Field Air Force Base (located 4.6 miles north-northeast of Syracuse, NY) in order to draw attention to the manufacture and deployment of the M-Q Reaper drone.
According to the longstanding Syracuse Peace Council their intention was to present grievances to the government by delivering a War Crimes Indictment, co-authored by former Attorney General of the U.S., Ramsey Clark indicting Hancock base personnel, up to their Commander President Obama, and to prevent war crimes of: extra-judicial killings, killing of innocent civilians, wars of aggression, and the violation of national sovereignty. During the trial Ramsey memorably quoted Dante’s Inferno: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of moral crisis, do not act.” Syracuse Peace Council member Carol Baum put it this way: “From the first moment, the defendants’ goal has been to put the drones on trial. The group argued that they were innocent of the lawful 'order to disperse' charge because the order was actually not lawful. It contradicted the Nuremberg Principles, which forbid wars of aggression, attacks on civilians and extra-judicial assassinations-all actions associated with drone warfare. Citizens have a duty to act where they can to prevent violations, even if the violations are committed by their government.”
Furthermore, in his closing remarks defendant John Hamilton professed: “There is no exception anywhere, for you, for me, for anyone from this overarching legal certainty: acts of aggression are always and everywhere illegal, and must not be ignored by the courts. Extra-judicial murder must be called out and stopped.”
Defendants also maintained that they were upholding the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of participants in war. Among other restrictions, the Geneva Conventions place a burden upon participants to limit civilian deaths and injuries through proper identification of targets and distinction between combatants and non-combatants. In his final testimony to the Court, Daniel Burgevin declared: “I am innocent of trespass. The unlawfulness of trespass is when a hellfire missile enters through the roof of a family’s home, exploding and spreading fire and shards of metal through the bodies of the family living inside…That is the unlawfulness and the criminality of trespass.”
The judge refused to allow the war crimes indictment into evidence. Within ten minutes of deliberation all eleven defendants were found guilty.
When considering the justice of this decision, try to imagine the following scenario. The year is 2016. You are at a birthday party in Highland Park. There is a rumor that the park is under surveillance for “terrorist” activity by a CIA maneuvered IAI Heron drone. But today you are not feeling afraid of anything. The sky is faultlessly blue. Children are playing tag by the iron cast fence along the edge of the reservoir. The smell of broiled hot dogs seeps from the vent of a portable Coleman grill. Everywhere is the sound of normalcy…Then in a flash you hear the noise of torrential whizzing like a drove of parachuting wasps. Boom! Within milliseconds everyone in your party is dead. Limbs are instantly calcified into unrecognizable gobs of matter. The scent of scorched flesh paints the air like rotten sage. The crater where the hellfire missile first touched the earth is ignited into a bonfire of diesel fuel, un-lodged cement and thick purple smoke. The impact zone turns into a radiant casket of liquefied skin and metal. In the distance the South Ave firehouse shrieks as bystanders look heavenward towards a roving caravan of answerless clouds.
-George Payne is Peace and Justice Educator at the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester.
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